We love our family, we hate them, we talk about them in therapy from the comfort of our empty bathtub with the door locked. A lot of different outcomes can come from putting a group of people together in a space for so long, as many of us are learning. But it’s usually in the everyday routines when we appreciate our families the most. Julie Blackmon’s photography career started after she had three kids — but coming from a family of nine children, she was used to creating her own space and finding her voice among chaos.
Her work seems both prescient in its depictions of inescapable family mayhem and relatable to our current moment. In photographs taken in and around her home in Springfield, Missouri, she creates fantastical, surreal landscapes and portraits of families who appear to be caught in a moment of unplanned, unmitigated chaos. Blackmon, who describes the last few months as "300 snow days” strung together, spoke with us about how the pandemic has influenced her work and why parents and children need space in their relationship.
Tell me about the work you do and how you started.
While I was in college, I was introduced to the work of artists like Sally Mann, Diane Arbus, Helen Levitt and pretty much immediately became obsessed. But it wasn’t until years later, after I had children, that I was actually able to create much work of my own.
When my kids were small, we moved into an old house with a darkroom in the basement. Like any mother, I wanted to take pictures of my kids. But I quickly realized I didn’t want to be just “the mother photographer.” I wanted my work to be more. Over the next few years, I went from making documentary black-and-white photography of my life and my sisters’ lives to creating more fictitious images that were a fantastical look at everyday life. Digital tools were available for the first time to make work that was more conceptual, and I liked the idea that I didn’t have to capture “reality” exactly but that I could work more like a painter or a filmmaker.
This realization, that fiction sometimes could capture the truth better than the truth itself, was a major shift in how I saw the world around me, and it really changed my work. For the last 10 years or so, I have been able to draw on everyday life around me and tell it in my own way. I’ve continued to be interested in creating narratives that are inspired by many sources, from the lives of my sisters and their kids to my own upbringing to the realities and psychological issues so many of us are now facing in our world today. But the social commentary element is becoming more and more important to me. Whether it be about global warming (my 2017 piece “Fake Weather”) or today with COVID, (2020’s “Bubble”) I feel like there is an endless amount of subject matter (and humor, even) to be found in our modern, scary world.
How do you craft that narrative within a photograph?
It's not any kind of formula; certain things just move me. During this time of COVID, I was thinking a lot about the anxiety we're all feeling and the day-to-day stress of trying to protect the people we love. I was just brainstorming about what I could possibly do. I was searching up “plastic bubbles” one day on Amazon — and the next thing I knew, FedEx had delivered a giant plastic inflatable ball on my porch. I’d forgotten I’d even placed the order. Anyway, I had a very willing cousin who trusted me enough to actually put her toddler inside it — very briefly! (She was standing by.) Anyway, I got out the leaf blower to blow it up, and with her help we were able to capture this moment. There was a lot of laughing (all of us), and a little bit of crying (the baby) — but that’s what I’m after, I guess, looking at dark things in a lighthearted way.
Yeah. Your work can be so chaotic and full of people — but even then, as a viewer, you can tell it has a mood, and you can try to divine what's going on. Are the kids you photograph all related to you?
Ha! No, but I usually have to explain. A lot of people have asked, “Are these all your children?” How would this even be possible?! It is convenient to have models that just happen to live across the street. Being one of nine kids, (with most of my siblings and their families living nearby), I also have constant subject matter at hand for ideas and inspiration, and a whole slew of preteen assistants at any given time to help me.
How has it been making work in the pandemic? Has that been challenging?
I'm super lucky in that way. I was able to make the image with the bubble without really having to get too close to the kids because their moms were helping me. Also, when I made the “River” piece, shot from overhead, I’m 50 or 75 feet above them. I'm pointing and yelling, but I'm not right there. And I’m able to keep making work in part because they're all outside.
When this is all over, I want to do a celebratory piece. I’ve been looking a lot at the work of Thomas Hart Benton. The way he captured these gatherings of dance halls with people of all ages. They’re so joyful and happy. Anyway, it’s interesting to me that the roaring ’20s came right after the 1918 flu pandemic. I feel like when all this is over we're going to want to get down. I can see even discos becoming a thing again. I’m just excited about the festivities that will happen when all of this is behind us.
In your artist statement on your website, you mention historical art as well, notably the work of Jan Steen, who paints chaotic family scenes with a similar sense of humor. How does that influence the chaos in your own work?
The chaos has always been more about a metaphorical way to represent anxiety rather than a realistic or literal depiction of chaos. Being the oldest of nine kids, I was always trying to find my alone time and my little separate space. I never understood the appeal of everybody in the same room at the same time. Family togetherness has its limits. It’s a lot of pressure. One of my favorite Jerry Seinfeld quotes is “There is no such thing as fun for the whole family.” That makes me laugh every single time I think of it. He’s so right. When we were growing up, if we had a snow day, my mom would kick us all outside and lock the door behind us, all the while ranting that we needed fresh air and exercise. Now I get it. It was never about us and needing fresh air; it was about her just needing her space.
In my generation, we had a separate world from our parents. We would leave the house in the morning, play until dark, either outside or at a friend’s house, and maybe not even come home until dinnertime. It’s not really like that anymore. But as parents, we still crave that independence. I think our children crave that independence too. But in this child-centered culture, parents are feeling a lot of pressure to provide their kids with constant stimulation. I’m really glad my kids are grown because I used to really freak out when there was a snowstorm and school was canceled. And here we are — it seems we’re on day 300 of snow days. I have so much respect for the parents of this time who are spending days and days and weeks and weeks with their kids. It’s unnatural and next to impossible.
The thing is, too much together time is hard, but too much alone time is, too. That’s what I’m interested in — the simultaneous need to connect and disconnect. They're such primal needs: the need to draw close and then to retreat. It's an ongoing theme, and it always has been for me.